8 On-the-fly Guerrilla Production Tips

Your buddy calls you at the last minute – there's a great event going on in your area, and you absolutely need to get it on video. You agree, knowing it would make a terrific mini-documentary. Unfortunately, the event is tomorrow, and there's no way you'll be able to assemble your usual crew in time. No worries – you'll shoot this one on your own!

Shooting on the fly is one of the most exciting ways to capture video, due to the mobility and flexibility it offers the shooter. The trick is to be as organized as possible up front. The more glitches you can anticipate ahead of time, the more energy you'll have to focus on the sounds and images you're capturing.


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1: Know Your Mission

Have a clear sense of your goal and what you're trying to capture. Be able to boil it down to one sentence: I'm going to learn why people come from all over the country to attend this event.

Write out a list of the images and interviews you'll need in order to achieve this goal, and bring it along with you. Having this focus helps you stay on target and gives you a strong sense of purpose and direction.

2: Assemble Your Gear

Visualize what equipment you'll need. Can you get it all together in time? Once you have everything, lay it all out before you. Take nothing for granted – make sure all the gear works, that you have enough tape stock (then throw in a couple more tapes for good measure) and that your batteries have a good charge. Try to anticipate the types of audio you'll need to capture, how much running around you'll be doing and how accessible your gear will be once you move away from your original setup.

3: Lighting Up the Action

Shooting without a light kit means working with whatever light is available, be it daylight or tungsten overhead lights. Whatever the layout is, you'll need to think fast and be creative when it comes to illuminating your subject.

When indoors, zero in on your primary light source. Decide if the space is predominately illuminated by indoor tungsten lights or daylight spilling through the windows.

Go with the strongest source of light, and set your white balance to that. If it's outdoor light, consider moving your subjects closer to the window to brighten things up. If it's indoor light, look around the room for floor or desk lamps you can move closer to the subjects, so there's more light on their faces.

When shooting outdoors, keep in mind that midday full sun often creates harsh shadows, especially when it's directly overhead. Try shooting in the shade, where the contrast isn't as great and the light is more forgiving. Rigging a bounce card to illuminate the dark side of your subject is a nice way to supplement direct sunlight.

Many cameras have a neutral density filter built into the camera that will automatically kick in when the image is overexposed. This knocks the intense brightness of the sunlight down a bit and makes it easier to adjust your exposure in harsh sunlight. It's worth picking up a couple of filters if your camera doesn't include this feature.

You may also encounter situations outdoors where part of your shot is overexposed, while other areas aren't. Always keep your subject's eyes properly exposed, as long as they're the central focus of the shot. If you're worried about losing details in the background, you can always pick up more detailed footage with B roll.

4: The People Have Spoken – Can You Hear Them?

Good audio is one of the easiest things to overlook and hardest to fix in post, even more so with all the distractions of shooting on the fly.

Monitoring your sound as you record it through the camera is the best way to avoid an audio catastrophe. Wear headphones at all possible times while rolling tape. Check your settings and levels ahead of time, so you aren't messing with them in the field.

Your choice of microphone will vary with each shoot and will generally depend on how mobile you'll need to be.

In covering a bike race, for example, you'll be running through the woods capturing the racers as they whiz by. A camera-mounted shotgun mic is ideal for situations like this, picking up audio directly in front of the camera – in this case from the cyclists – while avoiding distracting noises behind you. Be careful that the tip of the shotgun mic doesn't drop down and show in the frame!

Shotgun mics are flexible enough to use for interviews, but lavalier mics are generally preferred, if you have the time and logistics to use them.

Using a lav and a camera-mounted shotgun mic together is a terrific option when shooting interviews. This gives you one source for ambient sound, with a second channel reserved for the primary interview.

If your camera doesn't have direct XLR inputs, consider a camera-mounted XLR-to-1/8" mini-adapter.

5: Steady As It Goes

Shooting on the fly often lends itself to handheld camerawork. This style can pull viewers in and make them feel a part of your piece, but it can also be a distraction, if the camera moves too much. Always try to keep the camera still when zeroing in on the subject of your shot – it'll keep your audience focused on the image and not on your shaky camera work.

When it's essential to steady the camera, a tripod is absolutely the best option. If you don't have one handy, look around for anything that might keep the camera still, especially if you're going in for a tight zoom.

When time and mobility needs prevent you from using a tripod, a monopod is a great compromise. It's light and easy to carry, and it extends out in a snap. It can also provide a fairly stable base for tight zooms and pans.

6: Live Free!

Armed with a camera, mics and your own ambition and imagination, you're about as free as a filmmaker can be. This is where guerrilla filmmaking really shines.

Make sure you capture a variety of footage, to allow for maximum flexibility in the edit suite. Experiment and be creative with your angles. Get wide, medium and closeup shots to intersperse with your high- and low-angle shots.

When grabbing B roll, force yourself to count to ten before moving onto the next shot. That may feel like an eternity in the moment, but it'll feel just right when it comes time to edit the footage.

7: Shooting Interviews

The event is over, and it's time to speak with some of the contestants. Choose somewhere interesting to shoot the interview. In this case, you decide to speak with a contestant as she shows off her trophy.

In a typical interview, the interviewee usually addresses a questioner just off screen. That can be a challenge when you're both asking the questions and running the camera. You can't be in two places at once.

The best solution is to set up the tripod, then step away from it once you're sure the shot is framed properly. If a tripod isn't available, another trick that works is to hold the camera out at an angle or steady it with a monopod, while having your interview subject continue to address you directly.

Let your subject know that, throughout the interview, you'll be monitoring the viewfinder and audio input. When checking in with the camera, make sure your audio levels remain at proper strength and that the subject remains appropriately framed and in focus.

To safeguard against identity, spelling and pronunciation errors, always begin the interview by having your subjects say and spell their names on camera, as well as give you the titles they wish to be identified by.

Don't be afraid to ask the subjects to repeat themselves, if they're drowned out by background noise or trip over an important point. This is likely your only chance to capture the moment, so make sure that what's being recorded is as close to perfect as possible.

8: Uniform Inspection

Wear comfortable clothes with lots of pockets. Cargo pants are great for keeping extra tapes and batteries on hand, and they eliminate the need for you to run back to home base to restock. If you're outdoors, be prepared to get dirty. Bring a change of clothes if you'll need to get dirty or be presentable, as the case may be.

Viva la Video Revolución!

The event is over, and you've been running around like mad. You captured the action from multiple angles, and you recorded engaging ambient sound, as well as solid interviews. You shrugged off the restraints of a typical video shoot and got a number of different shots in a short period of time. Now it's time to take a breather before moving onto the next step – retelling your experience in the edit suite.

James Williams in an independent filmmaker and video journalist.

Side Bar: Checklist for Your Shoot

With so many things to stuff in your pockets, the following are crucial:

  • Names & phone numbers of contacts
  • Spare tapes
  • Extra batteries for camera and mics
  • Pen and notepad

Side Bar: Keeping Things In Check

Mind the following as you're rolling tape throughout the day:

  • Is the subject moving; is the subject in focus?
  • Are the audio levels appropriate?
  • Is the image properly exposed?
  • Is the subject properly framed?

Side Bar: Handy Filters

Using a filter can make it easier to capture images when lighting is too harsh or less than ideal. Here are a couple of good ones to have with you:

  • Neutral Density – reduces light levels in harsh sunlight, allowing for flexibility with exposure settings
  • Polarizer – removes reflections from water, enhances color saturation
  • Fluorescent – corrects for the green hues cast by indoor fluorescent lights

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